By Danny Peary
The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug continues to do astonishing business around the country and locally at the UA Southampton 4, where it is playing in both 3-D and 2-D formats. It’s my contention that sex appeal is a major reason for its success. For those attracted sexy actresses, the second part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s slim fantasy classic introduces Lost’s lovely Evangeline Lilly as a female elf who is not in the book.
For those attracted to hunky actors, there are three that will grab their attention: Lee Pace (right), who plays Thranduil, the Elvenking; Richard Armitage (above), who plays Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves on the epic journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug; and Orlando Bloom, who was so appealing as Thranduil’s elf son Legolas in Jackson’s Rings trilogy that the director inserted the character into his new film although he isn’t in Tolkein’s book. For the Australian magazine FilmInk, I participated in an international press day with the threesome several months ago in New York City. Last time, I posted a roundtable with Orlando Bloom. As promised, here are the roundtables with Pace and Armitage. I note my questions.
Lee Pace Roundtable
Q: Here you are again playing Thranduil. Is there a process involved in playing a character over so many years?
Lee Pace: It’s been a totally artistic experience, and I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve been working on this movie for about three years now, so the “process” means a lot of different things. There’s the incredible source material that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, about what Tolkien thought about the elves, and what his inspirations were. And I think of the elves that Peter Jackson created the first time around for Lord of the Rings–where can we take them in these Hobbit movies? Thranduil’s the first elf that Tolkien wrote. He’s a very tricky elf, you know. He is the most powerful being in Middle Earth, a legendary warrior. He’s not a friend, as the dwarves know. The best way I can say it is that he’s more like a very old tree, or a tiger, or a lizard, than a human. It’s fun to play a badass.
Danny Peary: It’s interesting that Tolkien made the elves, including Thranduil, immortal. You’re a vampire in Twilight and vampires start out as human beings who become immortal and deal with the new dilemma of living forever. But in this your character is immortal from the beginning. So how did you approach that?
LP: That’s a very interesting question. I’ve thought very much about that, and I think there’s a place to start answering the question. Like their king Thranduil, I see the elves as a force of nature. That’s what I think they are about. They are old Old World elves and their immortality is about transitioning to another place…
DP: If Thranduil weren’t immortal, would you play him differently?
LP: Immortality is a huge part of the elves, and I talk a lot about it in the movie. It changes the rules totally if you know that you’ll never die of natural causes. The elves love combat though and they can die in battle. Thranduil’s survived great battles in which most of the other great elves died. That is a huge cornerstone to the character, too. The dilemma that my character faces–as you see in the prologue of the first film–is whether to help the dwarves battle the dragon. He chooses not to. I think about that choice in the context of your question about immortality. Why should he risk the elves’ precious immortal lives for a lost cause? There’s a different set of values that comes with that immortality. Life is precious in a different way, not because it’s a transient thing. You’re not going to just pass through time with people but will endure and be like the stones and mountains.
Q: What can you tell us about the second film? Is there more action? Is your character more at the center of the story, as it appears in the trailers?
LP: In the second movie, the stakes get ratcheted up an incredible amount, which accelerates the action. The group must get to the mountain and there’s a lot of things standing in the way, including the elves. Thranduil does play a very different part in the second movie. Some dwarves come through his woods, but he’s not going to let them go and wake up a dragon. You don’t wake up a dragon unless you know how to kill it, and they don’t know how. His choice is not to use his force, but he could. Choosing not to do it, he’s taking the same risk as if he chose to do it, because he will still change the outcome of a conflict.
Q: This trilogy is based on one book. How deeply did you go into Tolkien’s writing to learn about your character?
LP: The book is great stuff. Tolkien was such an incredibly knowledgeable person, a real intellect. There were all these great sources he drew on to put his story together. You can’t beat it. It’s literature, it’s mythology, it’s cool. In many ways, it’s English story-telling, English language at its peak. For me, that material was not only a fascinating work but necessary. Decoding those riddles and symbols that he put in was very interesting work. You have to understand it, and be inspired in the same way he was inspired. So many things I read would occur to me later in the shooting, like that all of these kings live in underground caves. What is that about? How did Tolkien come to that? Was it reading Icelandic literature that inspired him, or was it some kind of expression of his imagination that he put these kings in underground fortresses in a very wild world? This is one of the most profound ideas in the story.
Q: Did you train to do any fighting?
LP: I trained to fight with swords. The fight scene was one of the most fun things I did on this movie. The stunt guys are so good, and I had the opportunity do quite a bit of the great stunt work, especially in the Battle of the Five Armies.
Q: What did you take away from playing your character?
LP: My sword skills? You always take a little bit from a character you’ve played. I don’t know what it will be with him. The research did to find him was taking long hikes in New Zealand and just going into the woods and thinking about woods. I’m a pretty gentle person.
DP: Do you think of your character as a bad guy?
LP: Thranduil is not bad, he’s just badass. You can’t compare him to humans because he’s not human. He’s wild. If you encounter a bear in the woods and it mauls you, you can’t say it’s evil. It’s a wild thing. Do you know what I mean? He’s a king, a significant king, a formidable force in this world. He makes no secret of it–he’s not devious. He has rules and principles.
DP: Do you think Thranduil’s been misunderstood?
LP: Definitely. In Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature, he’s portrayed as a pretty nasty character. But I look at him a little deeper and don’t believe that he is bad. He’s just not a friend of the dwarves; he doesn’t like them. When I think about him, it makes sense–if they are going to accumulate that kind of wealth, a dragon is going to come. I think that’s his wisdom. He’s looking at these dwarves acquiring a huge pile of treasure, and he knows evil will come a result. Thranduil knows because he’s been around for 3,000 years.
DP: He has a son, Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom, who reappears in this film. What’s the father-son relationship?
LP: It’s a very interesting relationship that evolved as we shot this movie. It’s about immortality as well. Thranduil’s heartbroken because of things that have happened in the past that makes this relationship very complicated. It’s very hard. It’s a movie very much about fathers and sons–there’s that storyline throughout the movie.
DP: I’m sure that Thranduil’s own father who was killed in battle plays into it.
LP: Yes, Thranduil’s father was killed in a battle that Thranduil fought in. And Legolas’s mother is not here. So there’s that loss, too. There’s definitely a difference of opinion between this father and son. Thranduil wants to stay close to his fortress gates and protect his people, and stay in this wild forest forever. He sees another war ahead but is cautious to participate because he knows the toll death can take on those left behind. But we know Thranduil will eventually send Legolas out into an even bigger world on The Lord of the Rings journey.
Q: Was the vibe on Peter Jackson’s set the same as with the previous films?
LP: I don’t know, because I didn’t do The Lord of the Rings movies. I just know my experience on these two Hobbit movies. I will say that Peter Jackson is one of the most creative people I have ever met in my life. He doesn’t stop at “good enough.” I can only imagine that after ten years making these films that his creative process is ten years more advanced. Every time I walked onto the set to do a blocking with him, I was amazed with what he came up with. I’d seen the sketch of what the set was going to be on the green screen, and it was astonishing. We shot some stuff in front of the Gates, and you have to understand, we walked on the set and it was just a few twigs and maybe a little rock and a big green screen–and then something amazing looking shows up in the movie. At one time, my character is sitting on a throne in his chambers and there are elephants as far as you can see in the background. One of Peter’s big gifts is making these beautiful settings. It’s an honor to be there. One more thing, Peter has the same sense of humor he always had. He still likes gory jokes!
Richard Armitage Roundtable
Danny Peary: I think Thorin Oakenshield is the tragic hero of Tolkien’s story, a flawed Shakespearean hero. Did you see it that way too??
Richard Armitage: Yes, it sort of evolved that way; I didn’t really come into it with that being his journey. I used the book a lot to build the character. But there were moments when I did look to Shakespeare for ideas and inspiration, and that’s somewhere in my portrayal . He’s complicated and complex. He is heroic with honor and nobility, despite his shortcomings, cantankerous nature, and stubbornness. I think we need to see him in the first half of the story as a hero. He will later be corrupted and spiral down, so it’s essential to give him some heroism at the forefront.
Q: Perhaps you get to release your inner anger playing an angry character??
RA: I don’t think dwarves in general are angry but they do have a lot to be angry about. They’ve been wronged a lot, particularly in this story. From the minute you meet these characters, they’re on their front feet, because they’ve been wronged and they have this quest they need to do. I was never playing a dwarf in a state of relaxation. Who is Thorin when he’s chilling out at home? I can’t imagine him not being at war. The dwarves are always on that energy level. I experienced it myself filming the third movie, because we were shooting some of the battle scenes and fighting at a level of rage that I’ve never done before. I was adrenalized and swinging swords around, and I found myself–the placid person that I am–very angry all the time. I think that that’s how these dwarves must live their lives, because they’re always ready for war. That’s what expect of them because they’re provoked repeatedly, all the time. In this story they’re on their quest to the mountain, to Erebor, for their lost gold and to reclaim their kingdom. But one of the complexities of the second film is that they know there is a dragon, Smaug, there to repel them. Thorin wants to get inside the door but he knows that once he gets in he’s going to be facing the most horrific thing that he or his people have ever experienced. I think one of the most interesting scenes that I play in the second movie is when they finally open the door to Erebor and Thorin breathes the air again of his childhood. It’s this weird sort of sense memory. He remembers all these things that happened to him. But at the same time he can smell the dragon and the dragon can smell him. It’s quite a moving scene, because only three of the dwarves are there when the dragon attacks. It’s very potent for him and the three dwarves with him when they finally open the door, because it’s been talked about for so long and it’s been years in the planning. They finally get there and it’s a very emotional scene. And the dragon attacks. It’s sort of the beginning of a downward spiral that you’re going to see in movie three.
Q: Do you find it strange that you are over six feet tall and playing a dwarf?
RA: I’ve never really found it that strange, I just get used to it. We were made much bigger than ourselves so when the computer does what it does it’s of no interest to me. It’s just important that we don’t look like children. I do get hot around the collar when I go to do voice dubbing and then see how small the dwarves are in the films. I don’t like seeing them reduced, because I think dwarves have quite big egos. It’s good that I have that reaction, because it means that I understand what it means to them to be formidable.
Q: How was doing the scenes with the dragon?
RA: During the entire shoot it was just a green ball on a stick, which is staggering. Occasionally an assistant director would walk around holding the stick. So you look at the ball, but mentally you try to create the face of the dragon. They’d show you a picture of the dragon – this is what it looks like. Three weeks later they’d go, we’ve completely changed it, and now it looks like this. So I decided I was going to create my own dragon in my mind. What I created didn’t even look like a dragon, it was just kind of a weird beast.
Q: So you never acted with Benedict Cumberbatch, doing motion-capture work as Smaug?
RA: Luckily toward the end, after we’d shot everything else, I did get to work with him. He was doing some voice work in the studio, and I came in to do something with him, so I actually worked face-to-face with him, which is good. I wish it had been at the beginning. I heard his voice, and the good thing is that I could then go back and re-voice some of those scenes with that sense inside of me. One of the good things about doing post-production sound is that you can just invest your part with a new essence.
Q: Was it strange when you were acting in a movie without seeing the visuals?
RA: There’s both a story in my mind and a movie in my mind, which I create in order to do these scenes. And the finished product that Peter makes is something else. I’ve always said that whether or not there’s a movie at the end, I still have to experience the adventure myself. And that means not seeing a green ball but creating something for myself. I felt like I was going on a journey. What’s great is that I’ll sit down in December to see the movie with the same eyes as you journalists. Although I’ve read the script, seeing the movie will be a very different experience. It will be a surprise for me.
Q: Thorin wears a very elaborate costume. Was there any input from you on costumes and makeup?
RA: Absolutely. I love, on a very basic level, that the elves are inspired by an art nouveau aesthetic and we dwarves are inspired by an art deco aesthetic. I love both periods of architectural design and I think it works pretty well. With Thorin we started with a lot of decoration, because he’s described as the prince or the king-in-waiting. That was very much incorporated into his costume. Peter and I negotiated with the costume designer, and we stripped back a lot of that so that Thorin would look more like someone in exile who is no longer wearing all of his jewelry and decoration. I wanted him to look more like a wild man than a king. That’s going to come later. But also he needs to have a face that people can relate to, so it wasn’t going to be too heavily disguised with silicones or elaborate hair. We simplified his look a lot because we needed to read that face up close over a long period. We needed people to understand what my character is going through. So that was something that evolved.
Q: What kind of training did you have for the fight scenes?
RA: It was always kind of very weapon-specific. Until Peter signed off on a weapon design, I couldn’t really train. So we had to hedge our bets, really. I knew Thorin would never be swinging a hammer or an axe. He took an axe on the journey, but in battle he’s a swordsman with a buckler, a shield. So I trained very much with that in mind.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ THE HOBBIT
DP: Would you play your character any differently if you didn’t know that at the end of Tolkien’s book he dies?
RA: No, probably not. His death scene was left until quite late in the shoot. We didn’t shoot it until pick-ups, which I think was a good thing because I’d almost forgotten about that moment coming. I think that part of the creation of this character is offering the audience and other characters in the movie a potential future. He had to be someone who was going to be king, he was going to sit on that throne and return the dwarves to their former glory. And in a way, his death has to come by surprise to him. Having said that, I think one of the things– talking about Shakespeare again–that I admire about Richard the III is that he rides across the battlefield to fight, single-handedly, for his kingdom, for his crown. In the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin is going to do something like that. It’s fatalistic. It’s almost an act of suicide. Playing it, it’s good I forgot I needed to die!
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: What did you like most about working on these films?
RA: That they never stopped writing the script, they never stopped working on it. Even when it’s all been shot and all the movies have been released, they’ll still be writing extra stuff, they’ll still continue to work on it and develop it. They’re probably still working on the first Hobbit film!